In the year 313, Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This decree, which came as a result of Constantine believing that the Christian God had given him victory over his enemy, and thus sole power in the Empire, reversed the persecution that had been sporadically carried out against Christians.
Yet, the Edict also gave Christianity primacy in the religiously eclectic Empire. Once a religion on the margins of society, Christianity quickly became the religion of the Empire, and church and state were fused together into a dangerous alliance.
Indeed during the Medieval Period, crown and cross were virtually inseparable, as Roman Catholic Christianity was the only religion of Europe, leaving the citizens of Europe without religious freedom. For over a millennium, church and state were indivisible. Loyalty to one was loyalty to the other, and the state was often used to enforce religious doctrines and practices.
In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the authority of the church in what is known as Reformation, a period of religious upheaval that eventually led to schisms in the church, giving birth to different churches in Europe. However, despite some radical movements in the Reformation that preached the separation of church and state, the two remained entangled.
A new experiment, however, was on the horizon as many who sought to escape religious persecution made their way to the New World. When the United States won its independence from England and established its own sovereignty, it was created as a nation that officially separated church and state, offering religious freedom to all its citizens.
There is no doubt, however, that the Christian religion did play a major role in the establishment of the United States. While most of the founders embraced Enlightenment Deism, they did considered themselves to be Christian. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that America was created as a Christian nation. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution makes any statement declaring Christianity as the religion of the country.
But even today, in our increasingly antagonistic political culture, some religious leaders would like to see a blurring of the lines between church and state. For example, a leading member of the Christian right has unequivocally stated that, “The ideal society is one in which church and state are inseparable.” His intent of course is to establish a Christian nation. While history has proven that such an alliance is very dangerous, there are significant theological reasons why church and state must remain separate.
First, followers of Christ are primarily citizens of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of our country. Jesus has called us first and foremost to pledge allegiance to him and his teachings. Our allegiance to the state, and its symbols, is secondary to our faithfulness to Christ.
This does not mean that we cannot be good citizens of both, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, and especially toward the marginalized of our society.
When the state makes economic policies that are unjust for the weak and poor, the church must speak and call for justice. When the state limits the rights of segments of a population, the church must stand for equality and inclusion. When the state creates foreign policies that lead to war, the church must stand for peace.
Second, the biblical story teaches us very clearly that God has sought to bless the world long before the birth of America. This is the reason that worship spaces should not include patriotic symbols such as the American flag, and worship services should not incorporate patriotic themes and songs.
This is not to suggest that we should not be thankful to God for what we have in this country, but we need to worship God as the God of the world and not the God of American religion. If we only acknowledge God as blessing America, then we fail to recognize the vastness of God’s love and God’s will and purpose to redeem all humanity.
History has demonstrated that the relationship between the church and the state is hazardous, for if one seeks to control the other, then both, but especially the church, will lose their identity and purpose.
If the state becomes an instrument of the church, then religious freedoms will be lost, as one religion will seek to control the state. Likewise, if the church becomes a mechanism of the state, then the church cannot stand at a prophetic distance from which it can speak to the potential unjust and abusive polices of the state.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.